The Sure Thing Called Imitation

The movies that most Americans watch are like the music most Americans listen to, which are like the television shows most Americans prefer and the books most Americans purchase (but don’t have time to actually read). They’re all, in varying degrees, imitations of something that came before and had some measure of commercial success.

The perception that Hollywood movies are pitched as cinematic math — “My movie is ‘Jurassic Park’ meets ‘Happy Gilmore,’ you know, a family thriller” — is largely true. A producer friend of mine confessed that if he couldn’t boil down his movie ideas to a one-sentence description, there was almost no way he could get financiers interested. This is why each summer brings reiterations of last year’s — or last decade’s — box office winners. Give the people what they want!

Anyone who wishes to be his own franchise, to be an artist that is sui generis, risks being ignored in the cultural marketplace. Ours is a society with a fetish for competitions and rankings. We like to make lists of the top this and the very best that, and if one’s creations can’t be categorized they’re difficult to sell because they can’t easily be compared to that which is already understood and enjoyed.

Despite the surfeit of sequels and interchangeable recordings flooding the malls like so many counterfeit handbags, not everything that competes for our entertainment and aesthetic dollar is cynically derivative. Some stuff has an original point of view or is executed with a newfound technical mastery that refreshes our weary eyes and ears. But even mavericks must take care not to tread beyond the boundaries of commonly understood parameters. To boldly go where no one has previously ventured is to risk ridicule or, worse, being utterly forgotten. The safe play is to repackage last season’s winner.

Imitation, the epigram goes, is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s also the surest way to be what’s generally understood as successful.

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